Secrecy & Leaks

Releasing "High Risk" Detainees

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, April 25, 2011, 11:09 AM

National Public Radio has added its voice to that of the New York Times on the new Wikileaked Guantanamo files. NPR actually has a few stories, along with this database--done in conjunction with the Times. One meme that is prominent both in this discussion on Morning Edition and in this New York Times story is the notion that a great many detainees had been released despite being classified as having a "high risk" of reengagement. As NPR reporter Tom Gjelten breathlessly put it this morning,

What we've learned that's most striking is about how the Guantanamo commanders ranked the detainees by how dangerous they allegedly were. We've learned for the first time that the detainees were officially sorted by how likely they were to pose a threat to the United States if released. That was the standard. . . . We now see that more than a third of the detainees who have passed through Guantanamo since it opened are officially assessed as likely to pose a threat to the U.S. But many in that high-risk group were shipped out anyway. . . . At least 160 and maybe more. We're being conservative here.

I find this meme infuriating, though I suppose it is inevitable. It provokes me to defend the repatriation and resettlement efforts of both the prior and the current one. I worry that this meme will catch on. It will be very damaging if it does.

A few key points:

First, of course the government believed a lot of the detainees to be high risk. That is why they were brought to Guantanamo in the first place. There were, of course, errors in detention, but there were not 600 errors--the rough number of releases--so it is blindingly obvious that the government was releasing some people it believed to pose some measure of threat.

The press has spent a great deal of time and energy portraying the Guantanamo population as composed mostly of sheep-herders and other innocents. But that was never the way the population looked to intelligence analysts. And having damned the Bush administration for detaining people who may or may not pose a serious threat (and it can be very hard to tell), we should not also damn the Bush administration (or the Obama administration) for releasing people who may or may not pose a serious threat. Decisions about releasing people were always about weighing uncertain risks and uncertain benefits associated with continued detention. And it is passing strange to find the press suddenly discovering that not every--or even most--released detainees were thought to pose only minimal risk. We cannot as a political culture cry out in protest when detainees are held and when they are freed.

Second, risk is contextual. This point is critical. It will not do to note that a given detainee was once classified as "high risk" and to conclude from that fact that it was an error to release him. A great many people pose risks in some circumstances but not in others. A person might, for example, pose a great risk if left unmonitored but pose a very manageable one if his home country is willing to take responsibility for keeping an eye on him. Saudis whom we would not want anywhere near airplanes with box-cutters in the United States might seem like eligible candidates for release into a Saudi reintegration program that has shown promising results. Afghan detainees who on their own terms pose serious threats might pose minimal threats to the extent one can, say, build Afghan institutions and prisons capable of handling them. By contrast, even relatively innocuous Yemenis might seem too threatening to let go if one is talking about releasing them into ungoverned territories with active terrorist elements. The point is that one's assessment of an individual's risk is only the beginning of the threat assessment assocaited with releasing that individual.

Third, risk assessments change over time. As one learns more about detainees, some who seem like high risk individuals come to seem less threatening--and vice versa.

Fourth, if we insist on irrationally vacillating between ignorant braying for the freedom of dangerous people and expressions of shock at the internal assessments of their actual danger, we will do no service to either liberty or security. We will paralyze ourselves. The knowledge that assessments will become public will induce severe risk aversion about releases. Those releases that do take place will take place because of factors--diplomatic pressures, for example--other than honest security assessments. Ass-covering will be the order of the day--and the next day, and the day after that.

So let me say this as clearly as I know how: I have criticized both the Bush and Obama administration for many things related to detainee policy, but I will not criticize either for this. Rather, I applaud the Bush administration for its creative efforts over a great deal of time to repatriate many Guantanamo detainees under circumstances that protected American security. I will not criticize the assumption of risk those efforts involved--though some of them did not pay off. And it has always bothered me that the Left was unwilling to recognize the seriousness of the efforts it undertook.

I similarly applaud the Obama administration for zero-basing the prior administration's judgments about the remaining detainees and making its own assessments of the residual population. Those efforts too involved the assumption of risk. And it bothers me a lot of the the Right, which tolerated the Bush administration's assumptions of risk with equanimity, treat Obama's assumptions of risk as the weak-kneed puttering of the insufficiently-committed.

We all knew that both administrations were taking some degree of risk in the name of liberty, in the name of America's standing in the world, and in the name of flexibility in a war that did not much resemble prior conflicts. We all knew there were documents like this with which we would at some point be able to wax indignant at those assumptions of risks, even as we simultaneously wrung our hands about fairness and endless detention and all of that jazz. It should be a matter of honor now not to pretend otherwise.